Twelve years ago, when Antonio Villaraigosa became the first Latino to take the mayor's office since 1872, his victory over the incumbent, political scion James K. Hahn, was a sensational masterstroke of coalition building.

“Villaraigosa won big,” gushed the Washington Post on May 19, 2005. “He won the Latino vote — and the black vote, and the white vote. He won the working-class neighborhoods, and the prosperous San Fernando Valley. The longtime liberal even captured much of the Republican vote.”

The two-term mayor might have to pull that rabbit out of a hat again if he wants to become the first Latino to occupy the governor's office since 1875. That's because he's facing an electric, progressive, well-liked and very good-looking challenger in Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, who's the leading choice among statewide registered voters, 31 to 21 percent, according to the latest USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times Poll

Newsom is crushing Villaraigosa in the Bay Area, with voters there favoring him by 53.2 percent compared with Villaraigosa's 5.9 percent. Local voters are not returning the favor: Villaraigosa (19.8 percent) and Newsom (19.5 percent) are virtually tied here. In fact, our former mayor has more support in San Diego and Orange County, which were considered together: He leads there 19.8 percent to 12.7 percent for Newsom.

Villaraigosa's not-so-secret weapon could be Latino voters, 30.1 percent of whom say they're supporting him. Newsom's Latino support is at 15.6 percent, the poll found. A little more than 29.2 percent of white (non-Hispanic) voters say they're with Newsom. Only 10.6 percent of whites are favoring Villaraigosa.

Luis Vizcaino, the Villaraigosa campaign's communications director, indicated via email that this will be but one of many polls leading up to the 2018 election — and that these early measuring sticks shouldn't carry too much significance just yet. “Polls go up and down, and what we will stay focused on every day is building a campaign that can create economic opportunity and equality for all Californians,” he said.

Newsom's campaign strategist, Sean Clegg, suggested via email that the lieutenant governor's lead would be even greater if his home base of Greater San Francisco saw its voters better counted by the poll. He sent us figures showing the Bay Area had about one-quarter of California's voters in 2014. But he says only 15 percent of the poll's respondents were from the region. The poll's data tables show 201 Bay Area voters were queried, with a plus or minus 9 percent margin of error. The poll, however, was weighted to overcome regional sample sizes, according to a summary of methodology. Still, Clegg alleged, “That’s just bad data.”

As is, the numbers from a total of 1,504 California voters (with a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points) add up to a few takeaways: One is that this gubernatorial battle to replace Jerry Brown could be shaping up to be a two-way race between the two Democrats. Only California State Assemblyman Travis Allen (15 percent) and California State Treasurer John Chaing (12 percent) appear to also be showing strength among voters in the six-candidate field.

“It is possible we'll have another November election with two Democrats on the ballot,” Robert M. Shrum, director of USC's Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics, said during a teleconference yesterday.

The other takeaway is that if Villaraigosa can energize Latinos, who compose nearly half the population in Los Angeles County, he could surge.

“Villaraigosa has a 2-to-1 lead with Hispanic voters,” Shrum said. “Newsom has a 3-to-1 lead with white, non-Hispanic voters. The key for Villaraigosa is to lead more Hispanics in his direction.”

Later, in a phone interview with L.A. Weekly, Shrum said that it was possible Villaraigosa could be the beneficiary of an anti–President Trump wave at the polls that started this week with resounding Democratic victories in statewide and legislative offices in Virginia and New Jersey.

“If you look at the turnout patterns in Virginia, Democrats who don't normally turn out in off-year elections did turn out, and they did so substantially,” Shrum says. “That's likely to happen here in California next year.”

The president's immigration policies and his vilification of south-of-the-border immigrants as rapists and gang members could send Latinos to the polls in greater-than-usual numbers, and that has the possibility of benefiting Villaraigosa, Shrum says.

Because Latinos now compose the largest ethnic or racial group in the state, “The day will come when Latinos will elect a senator or governor,” Shrum says. “It's inevitable.”

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